COLUMBUS, Ohio— Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a motion in Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn. asking the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider its recent ruling upholding a school district’s decision to terminate a middle school science teacher who encouraged students to think critically about the school’s science curriculum.
On November 19, the Ohio Supreme Court handed down a 4-3 decision in Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn. which upheld the termination of John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, despite a vocal dissent defending Freshwater’s right to academic freedom and insisting that his teaching methods are protected by the Constitution. The majority based their ruling of insubordination on the fact that Freshwater failed to remove from his classroom a poster depicting George W. Bush and Colin Powell, which he got from the school’s office, and an Oxford Bible and a book titled Jesus of Nazareth, both of which he checked out from the school library. In asking the court to reconsider the constitutional issues at play in the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the charge of “insubordination” against Freshwater is specious considering his “good-faith efforts to comply with vague, conflicting, partially illegal administrative directives.”
“This case speaks to an ongoing debate in America over whether we want schools that will teach young people to think analytically, critically and for themselves, or schools that will merely teach young people to parrot back what they are told,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “It’s our hope that the Ohio Supreme Court will agree to reconsider this case and, in so doing, recognize that the future of this nation rests with the schools and their employees and the kind of citizen they churn out—either individuals who understand how to exercise their rights, or ones who view the Constitution as an antiquated relic of a bygone age.”
In June 2008, the Mount Vernon City School District Board of Education voted to suspend John Freshwater, a Christian with a 20-year teaching career at Mount Vernon Middle School, citing concerns about his conduct and teaching materials, particularly as they related to the teaching of evolution. Earlier that year, school officials reportedly ordered Freshwater to remove “all religious items” from his classroom, including a Ten Commandments poster displayed on the door of his classroom, a patriotic poster of Bush and Powell with a Bible verse, and his personal Bible which he kept on his desk. Nevertheless, school officials suspended and eventually fired Freshwater, allegedly for criticizing evolution and using unapproved materials to facilitate classroom discussion of origins of life theories.
A Common Pleas judge upheld the School Board’s decision, as did the Fifth District Court of Appeals, without analyzing Freshwater’s constitutional claims to academic freedom. Likewise, the Ohio Supreme Court sidestepped the question as to whether Freshwater has a First Amendment right to include materials critical of evolution in his class. However, the Court did rule that Freshwater was not insubordinate for failing to remove his personal Bible from his desk because he was entitled to keep the Bible under the First Amendment’s guarantee to free exercise of religion.
Affiliate attorney Rita Dunaway is assisting The Rutherford Institute with Freshwater’s defense.
John Freshwater’s motion for reconsideration, November 26, 2013 (PDF)
Minority opinion: Reinstate Freshwater (Justice Terrence O’Donnell, with Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy concurring)
Justice Pfeifer: ‘In a case bounding with arrogance and cowardice, the lead opinion fits right in.’ (Justice Paul E. Pfeifer)
Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-5000 (PDF)
Editorial: Ohio Supreme Court decision shirks sworn duties
Freshwater responds to school board’s arguments
Student was not burned, according to medical expert
School board votes 4-1 to fire Freshwater
See the articles in the archive for additional coverage of the Freshwater controversy.
On December 6, 2013, the Mount Vernon Board of Education filed a memo in opposition to the motion for reconsideration. (See here for a PDF copy.)
On January 22, 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its ruling on the motion for reconsideration. The court ruled 4-3 to deny the motion.
The majority did not provide a written opinion.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote a dissenting opinion, with Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Sharon L. Kennedy concurring.
The dissent criticized the majority for “bypassing […] important constitutional issues and ignoring the defenses interposed by John Freshwater.”
O’Donnell concluded by saying, “I encourage reconsideration and further review of these important issues.”
(See here for a PDF copy of the ruling and the dissent.)